24 April 2018

Ever since I became active on Twitter and Facebook, people have been sending me messages asking for my advice. The most frequently asked question is how to deal with strong negative emotions, such as anger, hatred, and jealousy.

The good news is that those raising this question are already halfway there. The fact that they are asking the question indicates that they are mindful enough to notice the negative state of their own mind, which is not an easy thing to do. Most people are completely absorbed in their emotions and have limited self-awareness. The people who have asked me this question noticed what was happening in their minds as they were being swept into a whirlwind of negative emotions, slowed down, and then sent me a message. When people sense a negative emotion coming on, their first impulse is to control it so that they do not feel overwhelmed or threatened by it. If they can, they would like to get rid of it immediately or flee from it; they rarely think it merits deeper understanding. This is probably why people use such expressions as “managing anger” or “overcoming hatred” instead of “befriending your emotion.”

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It is difficult to quickly control a strong negative emotion; the more we try to control it, the more it becomes agitated and resurfaces. Even if we control it, we may end up merely suppressing it, only for it to re-emerge later. Imagine that a strong negative emotion is like mud swirling inside a fish tank. To get the mud to sink to the bottom of the tank so you can have a clear view of the fish, the last thing you want to do is submerge your hands in the muddy water and try to push the mud to the bottom. The more you try to push it down, the more you churn it up. Similarly, in an attempt to control a negative emotion, you may try to push it down. Unfortunately, the harder you try, the more it resurfaces.

So what should we do? How can we better understand our negative emotions and try to resolve them instead of suppressing them? The answer is fairly simple. All we have to do is separate the raw energy of negative emotions from linguistic labels like “anger” or “hatred” and then witness it calmly until the energy morphs into something else. What is important here is not to get attached to words like “anger,” “hatred,” and “jealousy,” and instead to witness the raw energy behind the labels. Although it may be subtle, the energy constantly changes while the label remains static. If you peel the label off and get in touch with the raw energy, you soon realize that the negative emotion is only temporary, one that changes without your efforts. Therefore, much like a mirror reflects what is before it without judgment or identification with the image, simply reflect the negative emotion— let’s say it’s anger— and watch dispassionately. You will see the anger slowly changing shape, either revealing a deeper layer of emotion or disappearing on its own. If another layer of emotion is revealing itself, attend to it the way you did with your anger.

When you try to understand something, it’s often most effective to set aside your preconceptions and observe it quietly so that the object of your examination reveals what needs to be understood. Instead of diving into the muddy water of your emotion as a way to conquer it, you should observe it from the outside and let it settle down and transform on its own. As the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said, pure attention without judgment is not only the highest form of human intelligence, but also the expression of love. Observe the changing energy both attentively and lovingly as it unfolds in the space of your mind.

I can imagine someone wondering, “What is so great about just observing? Isn’t it avoiding reality?” The answer is quite the opposite: You are not avoiding it; you are actually staring straight into it. Rather than getting caught in the emotion without any self-awareness, you are inquiring and then feeling what is there. As you get better at it, you will realize that the negative emotion is not a fixed reality. It naturally emerges and retreats within the space of your awareness, regardless of your will. Once you awaken to this truth, you will not be swayed by negative emotions and can regard them as a passing cloud instead of identifying with them as a defining part of your self. Do not fight your negative emotions. Observe and befriend them.

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